Charleston’s tourist district continues to expand into areas that were unlikely visitor destinations just a few years ago.
Now it’s Cannon Street, the corridor between West Ashley and a rapidly changing section of King Street where hotels, restaurants and bars are springing up like mushrooms.
A four-star boutique inn opened in February at 86 Cannon, and a bed and breakfast will open this summer down the street. Both follow major renovations of old houses.
"We've been drawing visitors from all over the world," said Marion Hawkins, owner of 86 Cannon. "We just had a couple from Russia check out."
This in a neighborhood that was on a downward spiral just a few years ago. The revitalization started with an influx of college students, as it often does. Investors bought up decaying houses on the side streets and renovated them for student housing.
Walking the streets
Hawkins and wife Lori had a different vision. They were living in Mount Pleasant's Old Village and dreaming of renovating a historic house.
Hotels aren’t allowed on Cannon Street, but it’s part of the only neighborhood in the city where bed and breakfasts are legal.
His background was architecture, web design and the family tobacco-seed business in Hartsville. She had worked in the hospitality industry and sales. They hoped to accomplish a lodging concept like Zero George, the boutique hotel that opened in 2013 in several renovated houses at George and East Bay streets.
“We wanted to do something similar, so we just explored it," he said. "We took our two dogs (white cockapoos) and just walked the neighborhood for six months.”
The house at 86 Cannon caught their attention. They found out it dates to 1862 and was home of Peter Poinsette, brother of Septima Poinsette Clark, the educator and civil-rights leader for whom the nearby Crosstown is named.
One of Poinsette's daughters was living in the house when the couple saw it. Hawkins sent her a letter asking if she was interested in selling. She called him back and said no way.
“We just kind of gave up," Hawkins said. "We were going to build another house in the Old Village and just stay there.”
Two or three months later, he got a call. The woman's son was visiting and found Hawkins' letter on the dining-room table. He called Hawkins and asked if he was still interested. They bought the house in June 2015.
Mixing old and new
The restoration included taking the house down to the bare bones, but they managed to keep most of the significant architectural details, including the mantels and floors. They called in designer Betsy Berry. She had been involved in several other renovations on the upper peninsula, including the Workshop food court at 1503 King St., Pancito & Lefty at 708 King and Lewis Barbecue at 464 N. Nassau St.
"I wanted the architecture and the bones to give the sense of place and the history," Berry said. "Then I wanted to freshen it and add a twist within the decorative detailing, to add the allure and fresh look on Charleston, because Charleston is growing. … We are rooted in tradition, but that doesn’t need to say we are stuck in a certain time or place."
The main house has five bedrooms on three floors, advertised at $370 a night. Each floor has a common space, including a sitting room, cafe and library. The couple also renovated the smaller former kitchen house in the rear, which serves as the office and their living quarters. The property has 10 off-street parking spaces surrounded by new landscaping.
"It's been an amazing transformation of the whole neighborhood," Hawkins said.
More changes coming
Meanwhile, significant changes have been taking place a couple blocks to the east. About six years ago, George Seago,a Charleston commercial real-estate broker, wife Amy and partner Lee Trent bought four houses between 68 and 72 Cannon with plans to renovate them.
The Seagos moved into 70 Cannon, which was leaning so much they had to put boards under the bed to sleep comfortably. They were also worried about vandalism.
"We were scared sometimes at night," he said. "Now it’s completely different, completely different. This street has come to life.”
The work at 68 Cannon included also fixing the foundation. While they were at it, they dug a basement underneath. Ladles restaurant opened there last summer. The Seagos plan to move into the main house this summer and open a bed and breakfast there and at 70 Cannon.
The renovation of 72 Cannon next door is nearly finished. A cafe with outdoor seating on the wraparound porch will open in that spot, Seago said.
Good, bad news
Leon Alston, a painting contractor, grew up in the house just west of the Poinsette House in the 1950s and 1960s. He left when he was 17 but returned for visits several times a year and moved back into the house in 2001.
"It's been a major change," he said.
He said he's glad to see rundown properties being restored but sad to see old acquaintances driven out by rising taxes.
“I hated to see the neighbors go," he said. "They left simply because they couldn’t afford to keep the house up with the high taxes, so they had to leave. So people from other areas came in and renovated the place. Taxes went up obviously. I’m happy for the revitalization. I just hate to see people dispersed from where generations and generations once lived."